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Monday, October 19, 2015

Fuentes de Ebro, October 12, 1937

The Battle of Fuentes de Ebro, part of the short Zaragoza Offensive and a disaster for the Republic, holds a strange fascination for me. It's an odd moment in the war, and the offensive was just as much about sticking it to a supposedly "weak" Nationalist sector as it was to get a Communist controlled army into an area held by anarchist militiamen now unreliable after their liquidation during the May Days of 1937.

I wanted to get as close as possible to the situation on the ground, so after much poking around Google Maps and Wikipedia, I ended up with the set up below and a challenging scenario to play.

Briefing: In 1937 the Republic embarked on an offensive in Aragon with the goal of taking the regional capital Zaragoza, which also served as the Nationalists' communications hub for the entire Aragon front. The Republican goals were to take pressure off the Northern sector by forcing Franco to redeploy troops to the area and to take the vital city of Zaragoza. In the disastrous offensive lasting only two weeks, they failed not only to take Zaragoza, but even to draw Franco's attention from the hard-pressed north.  This, despite the Republicans committing 6 divisions (including the International Brigades), 200 aircraft, and numerous tanks. Facing them were three low-quality divisions spread over 300 miles of front, concentrated mainly in towns and villages.

After initial successes in taking the town of Quinto in house-to-house fighting, the Republicans began a siege of the important fortified town of Belchite while another force was sent up the Ebro river to take the village of Fuentes de Ebro.  In an attempt to press the advantage of surprise, the Republican Generals ordered the Spanish troops to ride a column of tanks straight to the town. Little reconnaissance was done, and there was virtually no artillery preparation. The tanks were quickly bogged down in the soft ground of the alluvial plain, the troops were exhausted, hot and filthy from riding the primitive tanks, and all of the forces were forced to approach the town through minimal cover. Many tanks were destroyed by Nationalist guns in the town before they could be brought to bear, and the infantry had to deal with the machine gun nests that infested the town.

It was a disaster. As an observer from the Abraham Lincoln Battalion said afterwards: "Courage and heroism are plentiful in Spain and the Spanish people have no lack of it. What they need is tactics. And as for tactics, on 13 October, Regiment BT was bankrupt."

This week Fritz and I recreated a small slice of this battle, focusing on an attempt to flank the main battle south of the village by sending a force around to approach from the east. The village is surrounded by a sort of ring road and if the lead platoon can take a strong position at the edge of  that road, it would threaten the main defenses and give the main Republican thrust a chance to succeed.

Can the Nationalists repeat history and use their weaker force to repulse the stronger Republican offensive? Can the Republicans rewrite history and take Fuentes de Ebro?

Scenario Details: We're using the "attack on an objective" scenario from the main CoC rules, with some additional rules for the specific battle.  The low-quality of the Nationalist troops is modeled by rated the platoon "green", facing Republican regulars.

Further, neither side may take Preliminary Barrage, and the Nationalists may not take Random Air Support (to reflect Republican air superiority).  To reflect the actual history of the battle, the entire board (other than roads) is considered "soft ground" and vehicles going off road may become bogged down if they roll a double on movement rolls. The field of high grass on the Republican left would be light cover, but if caught moving (by overwatch or an interruption) it would be considered open ground.

The patrol phase... 

Which we sadly immediately aborted and restarted. As we set up, I was bugged by the vineyard on my right, as it seemed to give too much cover to the approach. I'd spent some time on Google Street View examining the modern approaches to the town, and it should be pretty light in cover. The fields of high grass on the left stay, but with the special rule from above applying.

We replayed the patrol phase, and sadly forgot to retake the photo. My jump-off points were placed near the good cover of course, with one edged up on the side. The third was behind some shrubs on the very open right side. I did not expect to make use of it.

Rather than roll for support, we decided to just call it 10 so we could get some vehicles on the table. Given the difference in quality, the Nationalists ended up with 8 support points to my 10.

Fritz (as an uninvolved German adviser to the Nationalists) picked a roadblock, an entrenchment for one team, a Panzer I, and a 37/45 AT Gun with crew.

I, as the loyal Commisar to the Republic, choose a T-26 tank (obviously), a UNL-35 Armored Car, 2 LMGs for my squads, a mortar for my mortar section, and an adjutant.

Fritz placed the roadblock very well...

And the fortification right behind the crossroads (which also acted as a 4th jump off point). His jump off points were very far back, suiting a defensive strategy.

Rolling for force morale, the Republic ended up with a mighty 11, and the Nationalists a respectable 9. I had a strong first activation, bringing my vehicles and a mortar section onto the board, along with my senior leader, who put everyone on overwatch.

The Republic then brought on a rifle section as forward as possible into the fields. I didn't think it likely that I would be able to hide my intention to cling to that cover to make it to the Nationalist lines, so I figured it was best to start early.

The vehicles offered a bit of a distraction though, as the T-26 obsessed the mind of the Nationalist commander.  The roadblock however was probably the best buy of the game. It forced my units off road, if even for a bit, which was enough to deny the armored car most of its mobility (moving double on roads). Further, every vehicle in the game ended up stuck at least once.

Fritz deployed his AT gun on the other end of the mercilessly straight road (which is what the road is actually like), and there was a fierce exchange of fire, but no harm to either side.

Ok, a bit of shock...

The road was their firing gallery, and the Nationalist were able to use it to stymie the armored advance, at least for a while.

Meanwhile, Fritz took the necessary step of getting a firing team onto the line to check my approach through the fields.

Worse, the Panzer I rolled right up to the overgrowth with its lethal machine guns. It opened fire on the approaching troops to great effect.

My junior leader on the lead section was killed outright, causing the Republicans to lose 2 force morale, bringing them down to same level as the enemy.

Countering the move, I brought my last section on, using that flanking jump-off point, essentially forming both sections into a continual line with full frontage. The newly deployed section put down covering fire while the other section tactically advanced. The combination allowed me to gain significant ground. The only draw back was the Panzer's machine guns, which we decided would not be effected by covering fire.

I also had to rush my senior leader up to take the place of the fallen section sergeant. Dangerous, but necessary.

That damned Panzer!!

The quality difference between the troops began to show as two entire sections (w/LMGs) poured fire on a single green section.

Meanwhile, my armored car took some hits from the AT guns...

Causing it to reverse suddenly, and nearly run down the Mortar team!

Here is actually where the roadblock became the most useful to the enemy. If it hadn't been there, not only would I have an armored car tearing into Fritz's infantry already, but when hit, it would have backed up on the road, rather than off it again. Worse, it was hit again, but rolled double for movement and got stuck for a turn. Just as happened in real-life 1937, the armor was getting bogged down!

Then, a run of luck for the Republic!  3 phases on a run allowed me to really push my two sections up without fear of return fire.  I moved at full twice, and on the third phase took advantage of the now close range to really mess up the opposing infantry.

Further, my T-26 got onto the road and sped at full speed towards the Nationalist lines, catching up with the infantry. I was determined to silence that damned Panzer, which was now the only real obstacle to my main infantry force.

With my infantry so close, I only needed a 3 to hit. One of the sections rolled so well I felt the need to preserve it for posterity.

At this point, the Nationalist section had had enough, and tried to pull back to allow the second (undeployed) section to take their place on the line. However, Fritz rolled very poorly, all of the unpinned teams had too much shock to move at all. This was to be where they made their stand.

Instead, the other section came on at the right, and started firing at long range at the Republicans.

And throughout all of it, the Panzer never let up.

At this point the tank was the only effective unit on that side of the board. I kept the pressure on, and soon the whole section was pinned, and one broke under the fire.

While the section on the left was still entirely intact, the one on the right was getting whittled down dangerously.

Still, they were effective enough to break the rest of the section, sending it fleeing and the Nationalist force morale dropping to a precarious 5.

Then the inevitable happened. The fire from the Panzer's machine guns caught three men, including my senior leader who was unluckily killed outright. I used a CoC die to avoid the morale test but it still hurt badly. Next time I will take a Commissar instead of an adjutant.

The Section now down to three two-man teams.

At this point, both of the Nationalists' senior leaders were with the AT team, and managed to rally the broken team (fortuitously the one with the junior leader) closest to it all the way down to 2 shock.

And that's when the T-26 arrived, driving straight into the intersection and turning its turret on the Panzer. Ting! Off the armor.

Meanwhile, the more intact section reached the hedge line, but would need to rally some shock before going into any kind of assault. However, it did capture the JOP on the other side of the hedge, and I immediately spent my CoC die to end the turn, causing Fritz to lose 2 morale, dropping it (and his command dice) to a 3! 

Ever phase, the T-26 fired into the Panzer, but to no avail. Shock accumulated, and at one point the crew nearly bailed out, but it did not flee. At one point it had to back up, but sadly for me got stuck in the soft ground right where it was, allowing it to continue firing on the infantry.

Speaking of soft ground, the armored car had to flee again off the road, thanks to the AT gun.  Thanks to the roadblock and AT gun, the car got very little action this game.

Meanwhile, rifle fire broke that team again, and the Nationalist Force Morale dropped to a near-hopeless 1.
My tank moved up to avoid the AT gun's LOS, but kept plugging away to no avail at the Panzer.

My now considerably reduced lead section tried to cover the second section, firing across the animal pen at the enemy.


With Fritz's morale so low, I worried that I'd break him without being at the crossroads.  If he withdrew before my men took the position definitively, more Nationalists would move in to push us back (aka, if he broke and I wasn't there, I'd lose the game according to the rules).  So, I ordered my men forth into a devastating close combat. It turned out to be a gross miscalculation.

I underestimated the strength in the enemy and my own accumulated shock and casualties. The Republican section just barely lost the close combat (by 1) and was sent reeling 6" back, reduced in size and with one team now pinned.

I'd hoped that the charge would end the game in my favor, but now it things suddenly looked terrible for the Republic. The casualties were atrocious, and despite their morale, the desperate enemy used their single activation to charge their section right back towards my defeated one. Desperate, I used my CoC die to interrupt the charge and have my smaller section (still with working LMG) open fire on them as the charged through open ground.

Despite the casualties and shock they reached my men, and elements of both side broke in the combat although the republicans were technically victorious.  My two sections were now reduced to a total of perhaps 8 men with one junior officer, and one of them was broken and making for the rear.

The enemy section likewise broke from the bloody combat, which dropped their morale to zero, ending the game.

As it happened, I had nothing on or withing 4" from the crossroads, so it is technically a Nationalist Victory, although Fritz didn't feel very victorious and wanted to call it a draw.   As I figure it, the moment even one more team of fresh Nationalists start firing at what's left of the lead platoon, they'd be obliged to withdraw, so I'd say this one went pretty close to the way it went in the history books, if perhaps with a few more Nationalist casualties.

Looking back, if I were to do anything different, I would have used my interrupt to move my T-26 into the crossroads, even if it meant parking it in front of the AT-Gun. That simple move would have resulted in a Republican victory.

This was one of my single favorite war game sessions I've played, incredibly intense, hard-fought, and anxiety producing from start to finish.  We were both surprised when we looked at the time when we started to clean up and found that the game had lasted an epic 5 hours.  Too much fun!

Fritz and I are both looking forward to more SCW action soon, even talking about a potential short campaign. We also recently each ordered a WWII platoon for some more (market?) garden-variety Chain of Command in the near future too.


  1. Great game and well played.
    I lost the final game of our recent WWI campaign on that same technicality!

    1. I saw that! That can't be a very satisfying way to end a campaign.

  2. Nice report with great pictures! Love this village...and this dangerous field!